Friday, June 2, 2023

Modesty: The Bible Doesn't Always Mean What We Think It Means

 The summer before I started seventh grade, I was old enough to start joining in the activities of the teen group at church. Camping trips. Bowling. Trips to Gatlinburg. It was all pretty exciting.

     I still remember Mom dropping me off at church for my first activity with the teenagers. I don’t remember what it was, but I remember showing up and immediately some of the kids a year or two older than me starting to give me a hassle.

     See, I was wearing shorts.

     No one had told me this was a problem. But the other kids knew. One of the young adults who helped lead the teen group took me aside and explained that, no, we didn’t wear shorts on youth group outings. Modesty, you know. The Bible says dress modestly.  

    Within a couple of years, we had other group leaders and shorts were OK. But I was a little confused by that. If the Bible says dress modestly, and shorts aren’t modest, then why was it suddenly OK to wear them? Then I went to a Christian college in the early 90s, and shorts were immodest again. That was maybe one of my earliest brushes with how tricky reading and interpreting the Bible can be. You learn, don’t you, that well-intentioned people can define the same word, even a biblical one, in different ways? That it’s harder to just read the Bible and do what it says than we sometimes pretend.

     You still sometimes hear Christians talk about modesty, though it’s less about shorts anymore. I find it troubling that the modesty debate among Christians almost always has to do with what women wear, and how men might potentially be affected by that. As though some Christian men think that it’s the responsibility of women to read their minds and anticipate what might cause them to have lustful thoughts. As though Christian men aren’t told to be transformed by the renewing of their minds, regardless of what women might wear.

     And I’m thinking of all this because of our ongoing consideration of how we read the Bible. To me, the various ways that I’ve heard modesty in dress discussed in my lifetime is a really live example of how we have to be very careful in understanding the Bible — and especially in burdening other people with what we think we see there. With a little work, we may discover that it doesn't say what we think it says.

     No one disputes that 1 Timothy 2:9 is translated, in part, “I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety….” The King James Version, which has influenced the church in any number of ways, says that women should “adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety….” The word we translate “modestly” or “modest” there has to do with shame; they are to dress with a proper sense of shame. The words that follow have to do with self-control, sobriety, sensibleness, and good judgment. They are to carefully consider what they choose to wear, and why, and use good judgement in their choices. 

     But here’s where we run into trouble. Paul most certainly doesn’t mean that women should consider their hem length, or how much skin they display. The women he was addressing didn’t have those kinds of choices in their wardrobe. They weren’t debating a sleeveless dress, shorts and a t-shirt, or a burqa. Styles in clothing, including hem lengths and how their bodies were covered or visible, were more or less chosen for them. 

     Besides, modesty had a different standard in Paul’s day than in ours. Roman cities had public baths, and by Paul’s day many of them were unisex. Only the extremely wealthy and powerful had private toilets; most people took care of business in public latrines in which privacy was non-existent. 

     The toilets of first century Ephesus are well-preserved, and consisted of long marble benches with holes cut  in them, protected from the weather by covered porticoes on three sides of a rectangular pool of water. No dividers, no private stalls, no gender separation. Apparently the toilets were a place to socialize, talk business, and even to receive dinner invitations! If you owned slaves, in cold weather you might even send one down to the public latrine ahead of you to warm your seat! (Though on a busy day, a cold seat wouldn’t be a problem!)

    It also might have occurred to you to ask, “Why just women? Shouldn’t men dress modestly, too?” In fact, Paul does address the men in the verse before, where he writes, “I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing.” He transitions to the instructions on women dressing modestly by saying, “Likewise….” That means he thinks his instructions to women in verse 9 and following are similar in some way to these instructions to the men in verse 8.

     The connection is in verses 1-2, where we have, “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” He goes on to talk about how this kind of life pleases God, who wants people to be saved. Through their prayerful, peaceful, quiet lives, the church cooperates with God’s intention to save people.

     For men, that means prayer instead of anger and dispute. For women, who wouldn’t have had much opportunity for that kind of thing, Paul wants them likewise to show their peaceful and quiet lives by the way they dress. Modestly, decently, and with propriety. 

     But then look at what comes after Paul’s insistence that women dress modestly — advice on hairstyles! So Paul has an opinion on women’s clothing and hair? Well, yes, because Roman women displayed their status by wearing elaborate hairstyles woven with gold, precious stones, and so forth. Paul goes on in the next verse to warn against expensive clothing, and says that the women shouldn’t “decorate” themselves that way, but instead, “with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.” 

     So when Paul says “modesty” he doesn’t mean the same thing we usually mean by it — though our use of it in a phrase like “a person of modest means” is pretty close. Paul means that the women of his day shouldn’t draw attention to their wealth and status by expensive and ostentatious hair and clothing, which would only serve to set them apart from women of more modest means — including those who might not yet have heard the gospel. He fears that such displays might be every bit as divisive and counter to the gospel as men angrily disputing with one another. Instead, women should “adorn themselves” by doing good — which is much more helpful to the spread of the gospel. (Some Roman writers contemporary to Paul complained about the amount of time women “wasted” on their hair, time that could have been put to better use.)

     Might these verses have something to say about clothing choices in our time? Of course. We certainly may and should consider how the way we dress — including how it might challenge typical modesty standards — could get in the way of the gospel. But don’t use a text like this to try to shackle a child or teenager or adult to your own standards of modesty. And don’t pass off your own responsibility to guard your thoughts and treat people with respect and honor by policing someone else’s dress. No one in our world thinks victim-blaming is acceptable, no matter what they’re wearing. 

     And note that, by biblical standards, clothing that we call modest might be anything but. It still must be recognized that flashy, expensive, extravagant clothing (for men as well) can set us apart from others — and sometimes that’s exactly what we intend. In what ways might that compromise God’s intention to save people?

     In the next post, we’ll consider how to get information on the cultural background of the Bible.

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